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Should Wesley Johnson or Nick Young Be LA Lakers Starting Small Forward?

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 30:  Nick Young #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers drives to the basket against the Washington Wizards at the Wells Fargo Center on January 30, 2013  in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2013 NBAE (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
Dan FavaleFeatured ColumnistSeptember 25, 2013

Los Angeles Lakers fans aren't short on questions these days.

When will Kobe Bryant return? What are the Lakers to do with all that empty space in the locker room now that Dwight Howard's ego resides in Houston? Who starts at small forward, Nick Young or Wesley Johnson? What flavor Jolly Rancher does Chris Kaman prefer?

And that's just what I could think of in the 10-second limit I gave myself. There are many more to consider, but one of the more intriguing situations to monitor is that of the starting small forward.

Outfitted with plenty of wings, the Lakers' rotation at the 3 remains unclear. Part of this has to do with Kobe's uncertain timetable; most of it stems from an abundance of options.

Mike D'Antoni, however, seems to have narrowed it down to just two. Young previously said that D'Antoni would choose between he and Johnson as the full-time starter, according to the Los Angeles Daily News' Mark Medina.

Starting can admittedly mean little in the scheme of things. Finishing the game and playing the most minutes are more important than having your name announced before opening tip.

But D'Antoni coaches to the scribbles of a different clipboard. He's known for playing his starters extensively, while those on the bench are provided with no such assurances.

Faced with an aging roster and inevitable health issues, Magic Mike will have to rest his coaching laurels on a different shelf, exploiting the (shallow) depths of his bench more frequently. That doesn't mean his morals will change completely.

Guaranteed playing time is at stake for Johnson and Young. One will be assured of plenty; the other will assume a less prominent bench role.

 

The Case for Swaggy P

PHILADELPHIA, PA - JANUARY 21: Nick Young #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers celebrates during the game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Wells Fargo Center on January 21, 2013 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images

Shoot more. That's what D'Antoni wants Young to do this season. Not just shoot—shoot more.

“He was on me when I was passing so much earlier today,” Young said of D'Antoni, per Medina. “I didn’t have that in a while. I’m excited.”

There's a reason other coaches haven't been begging Young to keep chucking. Prevailing opinions maintain he has been shooting enough, perhaps even too much.

D'Antoni wants shooters; Young will shoot.
D'Antoni wants shooters; Young will shoot.Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Young is one of only 47 active players—minimum 100 career games—to be averaging at least 15 field-goal attempts per-36 minutes. Of those 47, he ranks 44th in points scored per game (11.3), finishing behind role players like Nate Robinson (11.5), Aaron Brooks (11.6) and Charlie Villanueva (11.8).

Such intel is hardly a poster board for efficiency, mostly because Young isn't an economical scorer. He's shooting just 42.7 percent from the floor for his career and never converted more than 44.4 percent of his shots for an entire season.

But what many consider Young's downfall—shot selection, efficiency, general offensive decisions—can also be his greatest strength. His memory is selective, sometimes transient. When he hits a shot, he'll remember it come next possession. After a miss, he'll forget.

"What shot?" he'll ask.

Unapologetic-offensive mindsets are exactly what the Lakers need. Forget about filling the offensive void without Kobe (if it comes to that). Even with him, Los Angeles needs volume-scoring, floor-spacing threats.

Those familiar with D'Antoni know he likes his treys the way Amir Johnson likes his Drake albums—in excess. It's not rocket science. D'Antoni-coached teams are going to rely on their starters and shoot threes. 

In each of the last four seasons, Young has averaged at least 10 points per game, and he has never shot below 34.1 percent from deep. Never, ever.

Johnson, meanwhile, has shot above 35 percent just once in three years. And he hasn't hit more than 32.3 percent of his bombs the past two seasons.

Below, you'll see how Johnson and Young's three-point clips have compared to that of the league average since each entered the Association. League averages were obtained from hoopdata.com.

Via infogr.am.
Via infogr.am.

Young has routinely hovered above the league average while Johnson has done the same just once. Knowing D'Antoni's offensive ideals are predicated on utilizing long-range gunners, who would you rather have holding down small forward? The player averaging 11.3 points and 9.7 shots per game, or the one who has notched 7.7 and 7.6, respectively?

Viewed in that vacuum, the decision is an easy one.

 

The Case for Wessy Wes

Apr 13, 2013; Minneapolis, MN, USA; Phoenix Suns small forward Wesley Johnson (2) celebrates a three-point basket with Suns power forward Markieff Morris (not pictured) during the fourth quarter at the Target Center. Timberwolves won 105-93. Mandatory Cre
Greg Smith-USA TODAY Sports

If only we were allowed to inhabit vacuums exclusively.

Young is the better scorer of the two, that much we know to be true. There are two sides to every court though, and Swaggy P doesn't excel on the other. That's where Johnson comes in. Though he's never quite broached his ceiling on offense, he's garnered a reputation as a strong perimeter defender.

Last season, according 82games.com, opposing small forwards tallied a 12.4 PER against Johnson, significantly lower than the league average of 15. To his credit, Young held small forwards under 15 as well (14.2).

Here's the rub: Young isn't a small forward.

I know we live in a day and age where pop stars can mutilate Michael Jordan's jersey and get away with it, and positions don't matter. I get that. What I refuse to overlook is familiarity.

Can Young handle going up against bigger forwards?
Can Young handle going up against bigger forwards?Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Through six years, Young has never logged a majority of his time at the 3. Two of Johnson's first three seasons have seen most of his minutes come at small forward. He's more accustomed to defending the position and manning it general. That means something. It means even more when you consider there will be times when Los Angeles' small forward must pull duty at the 4.

"I was talking to (Lakers coach Mike) D’Antoni, and he’s expecting to use me from the 2, the 3, the 4 and the wing," Johnson told Lakers.com's Mike Trudell. He just wants me out there on the floor, and it felt pretty good to hear that."

D'Antoni can't use Young as a 4. At 6'6", penciling him in as the small forward may even be a stretch. Johnson's 6'7" frame and 7'1" wingspan makes him the better option to defend all types of wings.

The Lakers don't have that in their starting lineup right now. Once upon a time, Kobe was an All-Defensive Team selection, but that was more than a year and a ruptured Achilles ago. After him, there's some combination of Pau Gasol, Steve Nash, Jordan Hill and Kaman, none of whom are known for their defense above all else.

Think of Johnson as a younger Ariza.
Think of Johnson as a younger Ariza.Chuck Cook -USA TODAY Sports

And we're kidding ourselves if we don't see the value of a defensive specialist within a starting five. Players like Tony Allen and Shane Battier have made livings off such job descriptions. The Lakers themselves won a title with Trevor Ariza as their primary starter at the 3, and he wasn't considered an offensive powerhouse by any means. 

High-powered offenses make for great highlights, that's for sure. But they don't always make for the best product. D'Antoni has long been criticized for a lack of defensive emphasis, so he knows this. 

Appointing Johnson the starting small forward, then, would be a nice way to balance out an offense-heavy lineup that will torch opposing defenses no matter what anyway. 

 

Who Ya Got?

PHOENIX, AZ - JANUARY 2: Nick Young #1 of the Philadelphia 76ers smiles while playing the Phoenix Suns on January 2, 2013 at U.S. Airways Center in Phoenix, Arizona. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using th
Barry Gossage/Getty Images

Decisions, decisions. 

This isn't a franchise-defining predicament, but it is important. The Lakers have two players with different skill sets, and they have to choose one. And that one should be Young.

Young is more valuable to the Lakers than Johnson.
Young is more valuable to the Lakers than Johnson.Garrett Ellwood/Getty Images

Habitual chuckers like himself can be valuable off the bench as a sixth man. One only need ask Jamal Crawford or J.R. Smith. D'Antoni isn't known for using his bench, though. Los Angeles' current makeup suggests he'll have to reconsider a starter-heavy attack, but there's no guarantee he does. Limiting Young's minutes in a system that is perfect for him could prove harmful to the team's potential.

Mostly, though, I'm just indulging in the obvious—the Lakers aren't going to be a defensive juggernaut. 

To some extent, that increases the importance of situational prevention. Teams don't want to field completely vulnerable lineups. But defense will always be important; it's just less of a concern for a team that won't win games on that end to begin with.

Johnson's defense will rarely, if ever, be the difference between a win and loss. His D has accounted for an average of 0.8 victories per season since 2010; Young's offense has accumulated 1.2 a year since 2007.

Although that isn't the biggest of differences, it's a difference all the same. Which is all that matters for this version of the Lakers, who are who they are.

They're not defensive monsters. They won't make the playoffs because of their defense. These Lakers are built to score. They'll win games because they can score and seek a playoff berth for the same reason, a collective philosophy that will favor Young over Johnson. Every time.

Kobe's shot selection better make room.

 

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